Lest We Forget

On my side of the Canada/US border, we call today Remembrance Day. That’s typical of nations that count themselves part of the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth of Nations. In the US border, it’s Veterans Day. In New Zealand, France, Belgium, and Serbia, it’s Armistice Day. Don’t be afraid to point out if I’ve missed someone.

But whatever we choose to call it, the Observance references the ceasefire that effectively (if not officially) ended World War I, “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1918, but it’s come to be a day of memorials and services to honour those who have served their country, and especially those who died in that service.

Don’t get hung up on the World Wars. There have, unfortunately, been a lot more conflicts and peace keeping activities in the decades since. There will probably continue to be in the decades to come. It’s not an observance of the past some people continue to cling to and it’s not irrelevant or inconvenient.

Remembrance Day brings relevance to every other holiday and, in fact, every other thing we might choose to celebrate. Over the generations, people have fought, bled, and died to give us the luxury of not giving a shit. If you didn’t at 11 am this morning, take a couple of minutes. Remember the people in your family whom you know wore a uniform at some point. Stretch that remembrance out to encompass everyone who has stood as the shield between our society and the darkness that might have been. Whisper a word of thanks, even if it’s only in the privacy of your own skull.

Then, if you really need to, you can go back to not giving a shit. Because that’s part of what they’ve protected.

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Evolution: And the Geek Shall Inherit?

So once in a while a really interesting conversation develops on Facebook. It could be about anything, but my getting involved means it’s likely to be skeptical in nature, commentary on society, or genre fiction related.

In this case, a friend on Facebook, hereafter noted as ‘Person 1’, posted this as his status update:

If H. sapiens was meant to be an herbivore, you would have lost the teeth required to effectively tear flesh, now STFU and eat a damn burger already.

Sincerely,

-Evolution

The rest of the conversation, minus a couple of joking comments and typed laughter, and occasionally edited for punctuation (and once or twice for spelling), went something like this:

Person 2: We are meant to be omnivores. Scavengers! Thus the vast amount of acids our body creates for digestion of flesh and meat, thus the requirement of teeth and K9’s! Re-read the Origin of the Species, bro! 🙂

Person 1: Maybe you need to re-read my status because that’s what I just said… Bro.

Person 3: So does that mean all the ‘duckface’ profile pics we see is actually evolution?

Person 1: Unfortunately duck face is a result of allowing all to survive instead of just the fittest. Evolution in H. sapiens has basically stalled out.

Me: I disagree with the human race being stalled. We’ve heavily modified our environment in pretty much every way possible. As a result, we’re now selecting for different traits. Allowing everyone to survive instead of just the fittest (and what’s our new definition of fittest?) will also allow our genes to throw more possibilities out there to see if anything sticks to the genetic wall.

Person 1: Disagree all you like. 🙂 Disagreeing doesn’t really change anything though. We no longer select for any traits, we do everything we can to allow every possible trait to survive. It once was that during times without food, people who did not have the right genes wouldn’t have enough fat stored in their bodies to keep going so they died out. As a result, H sapiens is very good at storing food… Fast forward say 10-15,000y or so, now you have those same genes in an environment where food is plentiful. Now the majority of society is overweight (partially because of genes, partially environment) rather than those people dying off and people with ‘thin’ genes surviving and ending up with another genetic shift, we strive to allow people with ‘fat’ genes to also survive, keeping the shift from happening.

Colourblindness is another example. 15,000y ago, I would very likely have been eaten by an animal by now because I would not have seen them if they were camouflaged. BUT, since we have no natural predators anymore, because we’ve so heavily modified our environment as you pointed out, my genetic deficiency is allowed to continue and propagate even though it is deleterious to me and the overall species.

There is no evolution of H sapiens because there is no natural selection. We fight nature every step of the way to make sure that everything survives, and if everything survives nothing can be selected for naturally. It’s not possible to have evolution without natural selection and since we’ve more or less negated natural selection, we have no real evolution. The definition of fittest has not really ever changed either, I would still define it as the best suited traits for a given environment However, we can change our environment meaning the fittest don’t seem to matter so much since we can modify our environment to the point where even the least fit survive.

Until we get better at genetic engineering/synthetic biology, there is not a whole lot we can do to kickstart the evolutionary process (other than eugenics and that’s a pretty touchy subject). Therefore, (at least for now) the evolution of Homo sapiens is stalled.

Me: Still disagree.

You do make a couple of good points, though. I’m near sighted. Would never have made a good hunter in the environment our somewhat wilder ancestors developed and grew in. Probably would have died young because I threw the spear too soon. Or, I would have been the guy who figured out some improvements on our tribe’s trapping methods. If I’d lived, at almost 42, I’m now past average life expectancy and probably an elder of the tribe.

But we absolutely do select for specific traits. What those traits are may depend on what segment of society (or which part of the world) you’re talking about. I actually wonder if we’ve got a few sets of parallel evolutionary experiments going on. Men don’t select for the sturdy woman who’s likely to bear him the greatest number of living offspring and women don’t select for the man who can beat off the cave bear with a club so those offspring continue to live. Nature selects for the best fit, but once it selected for enough intelligence for us to make our own selections, it became natural for us to manipulate the process. Having gained that intelligence, we’ve used it to build a technological society and that society has helped shape us. It’s a circle.

We can no longer survive the lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, not least because we don’t digest our food quiet the same way. We’ve adapted to most things being cooked. Raw meat doesn’t work, scavenged or otherwise. AND we’re no longer raised to the intense existence of having to find our own food every single day. We’ve gained in height and intelligence and knowledge, but at the expense of shorter life spans and physical capabilities that would put most professional athletes to shame, at least while our bodies lasted.

We are still human, but what it means to be human is not the same thing it was 10,000 years ago.

Are we overdue for a major evolutionary change? Probably not. It doesn’t work that fast and our environment has changed gradually enough until recently to let us change with it.

Are we about to have a major evolutionary change? I don’t know. Do you believe in the Singularity?

Person 1: Ha, ha, ha! I can’t really speak for others but a woman with a ‘sturdy’ set of hips still makes me want to have more babies than a woman without them. And women are still 100% attracted to alpha males! (Anyone who tells you different is a greasy liar.)

Me: I’d argue that the general definition of alpha male has changed and that even while women (in general) may be attracted to the strong, athletic type, intelligence and reasoning both have an effect on final selection of a mate/partner, for both partners. Our society may worship the physical, but it does so from a distance. On a day to day basis, it’s more likely to value the ability to use the genetic resources one has to keep things going at the level we’ve become accustomed to or improve on it.

Me: And the Geek shall inherit the Earth.

And as things so often happen on Facebook, the conversation doesn’t stay near the top of the stream long enough, but I thought the general ideas interesting enough that I wanted to hold onto them a little longer. There are many questions and few definitive answers.

I think a lot of definitions have changed. What we find attractive goes far beyond the physical and the potential of strong, capable offspring, sliding deep into the territories of intellectual and social values. There are people you just instinctively know you’re not compatible with because of their views in certain areas and there are people who feel the same way about you.

Evolution applies, but the human race has grown into a pretty complicated thing. We each shape ourselves and society even as society works to shape us. Evolution never stops. Where will we be in 100 years? Good question. It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

Dancing With The Dark Side

(This post originally appeared as a guest post on Chocolate Scotch, a blog run by Sue Baiman in early August. I encourage everyone to check out the huge variety of thoughts on creativity posted there.)

There are far more ways to express yourself through art or craft or science than there are people. I’d go so far as to say that everyone is creative in some way. It’s something inherent in human nature, though not everyone allows that part of themselves to peak at the outside world, and only a few of us allow our creativity anything approaching free rein. Still, whether we consider ourselves creative or not, we all think of creativity as one of the most positive traits someone can possess.

So why do we have a cultural cliché in the tortured artist? Why do we feel on some level that we have to suffer or sacrifice for our art?

If creativity is a mostly positive thing, it also has its issues, moments that threaten the act of creation and sometimes your life beyond it.

Creativity has a dark side.

The Next Project

You’re in the middle of a project you love—a novel, a screenplay, a painting—something fun, exciting, and going very well. Creative energy burns through you, desperate to be turned loose, impossible to contain. A new idea sprouts in the back of your mind, something you can look forward to doing when you’ve finished. It’s new, it’s exciting, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.

It’s the Next Project, and it isn’t content to wait in the back of your mind until you can give it the attention it deserves. The Next Project considers the Current Project competition, and it will demand more and more of your mental attention until you reach the point where you’d rather abandon the Current Project and start on the Next Project.

I’ve written 1/3 to 1/2 of at least five novels, and I don’t know how many short stories, this way. Yes, I have every intention of getting back to each of them someday, but there will always be a Next Project to distract me and as each abandoned story falls farther into the past it also falls farther down the priority list.

But I’ve found a way to counter this dark side manoeuvre, to scratch the mental itch. And it seems so obvious, so absurdly easy, I’d like to smack myself in the back of the head for not thinking of it years sooner.

Work on the Next Project, but only a little teeny bit, or in a way that makes it different, or both. Spend ten or fifteen minutes a day on the new thing. Maybe with a pencil and paper instead of the keyboard. Slower, yes, but it lets you keep your focus on the primary project at the same time.

The best of both worlds? Always up for debate, but it helps.

No Means, Well, Um…

Okay, so maybe you can work on more than one project at a time. Lots of people can and do. Variety is nice, but just how many major projects can you have going at the same time and still make any real headway on any of them? It’s easy to take on too much. Believe me, I know.

And it isn’t always self-inflicted. Sometimes people come to you. You may have discovered this law of nature in your day job, but it crops up in the creative world, too: the reward for good work is more work.

Someone really liked a story of yours they read in an anthology last year so asks you to submit to theirs. That voice work you did in your cousin’s podcast was great—and could you do this major character in my thirty-episode audio drama? The blanket you knitted for the new baby next door was beautiful. My sister’s having triplets…would you mind?

And sometimes it’s got nothing to do with you. The universe is sneaky and underhanded, and it will throw things at you to suck up all of the time you thought you had. Voilà! You’re overcommitted. And there are deadlines, and you fall behind, and your stress level goes up…

When you get a new idea, it’s easy to give it some time to see where it takes you. When someone comes to you to ask for your creative help, it’s easy to say yes. It feels good on both counts: getting things done and doing things for other people.

But when you’ve taken on so much that you can’t get anything done, whatever the reason and whether or not there are deadlines attached, you’ve got a problem: you can’t get anything done. For someone who needs to be creative in some way, this is nothing short of torture.

There’s a deceptively simple solution. Be honest. Both to yourself and to the people you’ve already committed something to. Prioritize and explain those priorities. And don’t be afraid to admit that the universe has thrown you a series of curve balls. Be as open as you feel you can be.

And if someone asks you to do something that really excites you, don’t say no, at least not outright. Ask them to ask you again in a few months, if the offer is still open, or drop them a quick line when you’ve caught up a little.

Honesty is still the best policy. It’s not always the easiest though, even with yourself.

Stealing Time

You’ll run across the advice sometimes that you should steal time from other parts of your life to pursue the creative endeavours that are so important to you. Take the laptop to bed with you, take a notebook to your daughter’s soccer game or your son’s karate lesson, and your boss certainly won’t mind if you do a little of your own thing on company time. Steal the minutes wherever you can and be as productive as you can with them.

Creativity’s dark side is whispering directly into your soul. There’s a huge difference between making time and stealing time.

Suffering a little for your art—giving up a few hours a week of TV or video games, or that thing you used to really love doing on Saturday morning that’s now far more like a chore than something fun, anyway—can improve your art, or at least the value and focus you place on it. Making other people suffer for your art just makes you a jerk, especially if those other people are your family and actually like having you around.

This is a hard lesson. The real world is very important.

Without Darkness, There Can Be No Light

Which isn’t the same as saying you should wallow in the darkness looking for a spark to clear it all away. You don’t need to succumb to the dark side to learn how to defeat it. You only need to watch out for the potential pitfalls your passion to create can lead you to.

Each of these things I’ve had to learn the hard way, and I’ve had to relearn them, too. More than once, and I’m probably not done with the lessons yet. There’s always more to learn, and more to create.

Figuring Out Priorities

I first drafted this post two weeks ago after a hectic couple of weeks where I hadn’t gotten much done.  That’s continued, but since the head cold, it’s mostly been fun stuff with the family and work.  There was a weird schedule for the last week of June and first two of July, a grade 8 graduation (which made me feel proud and old at the same time), a christening, the mentioned head cold, and a handful of other things.  Haven’t had a lot of extra time and energy lately.  I’d planned for this to have audio to go with it, but haven’t managed to record (although I’ve learned a bit more about recording and my next audio blog should sound better when it happens).

All of the stuff I’ve had going on lately, added in my head to the events of the past couple of years, has had me thinking about priorities again.  For some of my commute (aka: quiet time), I’ve been trying to think about how I spend my waking time, things I do every day or only when necessary, things I seek out and things I avoid.  While life is less finite than it used to be, there’s no way to know how long your own personal stretch in the world is going to be.  There may always be fewer days ahead than there are behind.

So on some level, it’s important to prioritize the time you have, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

In uncontested first place: family. This seems obvious, but it’s something that you need to remind yourself of frequently.  Just about every little shiny thing that comes along has the ability to take time from your family.  Yes, there are things that need to be done, but only seen in the light of contributing to the well being of your family or one of its members.  (Example, the, um, spirited discussion I had with my oldest about going to the beach a week or so ago.  Not fun, but needed to happen.  He needed some daylight.)

Second comes career.  Not in and of itself, but as a consequence of Priority #1.  While arguments about being happy in your job or productive in society certainly apply, the main reason this comes second is that it provides for my family. I actually like my job most of the time, but I don’t like how much it takes me away from home.  The equation is pretty simple, though: no paycheque = no food, power, internet, etc.

There’s a huge gap between second and the two items sharing third: Writing and Karate.

Writing. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but I only really started to take it seriously a few years ago.  I realized a while back that I was getting a bit obsessive about it.  In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing; I think if you want to get good at something, you probably need to be a bit obsessive, but if you get to the point where you’re stealing time from more important things, it’s probably time to reign it in a bit.  I’ve managed to massage my writing schedule to the point I’m mostly writing every day (motivation has been hard the last couple of weeks) but I get very little done on days off.  The second part of that seems counterintuitive until you remember point number one.

Karate. I took up martial arts about two years ago with my son as a shared activity.  He’s taking an extended break from it, but in the meantime my wife and oldest daughter started coming too.  I don’t go by myself very often, but I spend a little time training every day.  Karate satisfies several deep needs in my psyche.

Why are these two things tied?  Well, I spend time on each every day and roughly equally.  I’ve discovered that I’m happy when I’m learning something new or when I’m creating something new, but I’m happiest when some part of my time is spent doing both.  The learning thing is also partly why I’m taking audio Japanese lessons in the car several days each week.

Which brings us to the item in fifth place: dreams.  Dreams are important.  You need things to strive for.  It’s part of what makes the difference between existing and living.  The dream in question here is studying Karate in Japan for a year.  A big dream when you’re taking four people along for the experience.  I’ve got lots of little dreams, too, and a pretty extensive bucket list.  More on those another time.

Priorities.  The final decision is that everything in my life needs to apply to one of those five things, and it’s nice when something can serve multiple causes.

And, if the universe will humour me for a moment, as much of it as possible should be fun.

Be well.

Chocolate Milk and Growth Hormones

My son and I went to see the Avengers last night (fun movie, not relevant to the subject at hand, but two armoured thumbs up) and he was feeling generous enough on the way home to carry on a conversation with me through various topics.

At one point, talk turned to how I had to take him suit shopping shortly.  Grade 8 graduation happens in June and he can’t wear one of my suits.  Sure, he’s very nearly as tall, but I’m thicker around the middle and broader across the chest, so nothing I have will come near fitting properly.  If we choose wisely, we’ll have something he can probably wear for a couple of years to weddings and other important events even if there needs to be a bit of tailoring.  I threw out the off-hand comment that he’d fill out over the next couple of years and be bigger than I am soon enough.

He said that a couple of his friends were growing past him again (Really? My kid is 5’10” and not even 13 ½ years old. What kind of giants are we breeding?) so he probably should start hitting the chocolate milk harder again to get more growth hormones.

“Really?”

“Yeah, I don’t want to fall behind.”

“You’ll grow when you grow.  Relax.”

Fall behind.  Like it’s an arms race.  We have to get taller before the Russians do.

In fairness, we used to joke that all the chocolate milk he was drinking made him grow faster.  Hormones supposedly pumped into dairy cattle to increase milk production were obviously to blame, right?  How else could he have gotten so big?  Newsflash: my son has always been big for his age and for a time when he was eight or nine actually introduced himself as Monster Boy.  He’s recently been accused of being seventeen.

On the subject of milk, he’s been drinking a lot less of it for the last few months and has for some reason connected that with growing slower than a couple of his friends.  Growth hormones again, right?  Except we live in Canada and it’s only legal to use growth hormones for beef cattle here, not for dairy cattle.  There aren’t any extra hormones in the milk he guzzles.

“I know, but the milk helps.  I can taste the growth hormone.”

Really, I didn’t say, the ones that aren’t actually there.  Instead, I steered the conversation back to high school because they had an orientation day this week.

Now some of you might be thinking that I missed a prime educational opportunity here to discuss the use of hormones and antibiotics in food production and how he has a slightly skewed view of the world when it comes to them.  You’re absolutely right, but I had two reasons for not having that talk:

  1. Not every conversation has to be educational, especially not on the heels of a superhero movie.
  2. I want the kid to keep drinking milk.  It’s good for him and if he’ll do it on his own it’s one more eating/drinking habit I won’t have to worry about.

To paraphrase Sun Tzu: he will triumph who knows when to parent and when not to parent.

Be well.